He’s pushing ninety. Too-big trousers hoisted over his shrunken waist, cinched in with a cracked leather belt probably as old as him. A jaunty red bow tie garnishing a once-white shirt. Worn-out sneakers drag on the carpet as he shuffles down the ramp. He beelines for the display stand and stoops low, peering at the flyers without glasses before fumbling in his pocket for his specs. ‘That’s the one,’ he says to himself, taking the Morning Melodies program. A creak escapes as he straightens up and shambles to the counter, facing me with a gummy smile so wide it almost wipes his wrinkles away.
‘Good morning. How may I help you today, sir?’ Didn’t he buy tickets three, maybe four, months ago?
‘I’d very much like to buy a ticket to the next concert. Not the Jay Weston one – I’ve seen him and he’s very good, of course – but the first one, the,’ he consults the program, ‘the Michael Bublé one. I’ll buy the Jay Weston one next time. Got to keep track.’
Yes, it’s the same man. His voice: thin, shaky, but enthusiastic, laced with happy emphasis. His smell: stale, but not offensive, an old-person-musty smell that drifts under the glass and is dispersed by the air-conditioning vent overhead. His eyes: rheumy and faded, but with the hint of a youthful twinkle. Age has not dimmed his joy in life.
‘You know it’s a tribute concert, the Michael Bublé one?’ Our Tom Jones tribute act attracted knickers-flinging seniors who’d somehow missed the word ‘tribute’ when they booked. Either that, or they were paying tribute in their own way. Poor sod on stage. Didn’t expect that when he turned up to sing for a bunch of oldies. That’s what he said, the performer. Don’t think he minded the flinging knickers, though. His chest was a tad puffed out when he left the stage and my colleague swears a lacy pair was sticking out of his pocket.
‘Oh yes, dear, I know he’s not the real Michael Bublé. You probably couldn’t afford him here, the real one. I’m not poor, mind, but his tickets are a bit expensive. I’ve got a Michael Bublé concert DVD at home and I’ve watched it three times. He’s very good, isn’t he. I might also get a ticket for the Frank Sinatra one while I’m here. Never did like Old Blue Eyes as such, but I quite liked some of his songs.’
Ticketsh. Timesh. Songsh. His words slurp, like there’s soup in his mouth. Stray spittle flicks onto the just-cleaned glass. A sheepish expression crosses his face.
‘I have one hundred and sixty-eight concert DVDs, you know,’ he continues, wiping the mess with a cotton hanky he digs from his pocket. Trembling fingers rat-a-tat on the glass. ‘Everything from rock to opera to classical.’
‘You must love music.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Yesh. ‘I love music. And concerts. I always have. I go to shows whenever I can. Wherever I can get to by public transport in the day time – I don’t drive anymore and I stay home at night. I don’t mind where it is, as long as I can get there with a bus and train and a bit of a walk. I walked here today from the bus stop in town, even though it’s hot outside. I don’t mind walking in the heat. Some people complain about it, but I’d rather it was hot outside than cold and wet and windy.’
I prefer the cold, but he continues before I can say so.
‘The classic was when someone said, “Herb, I’ll bet you don’t have a One Direction CD in your collection.” And I said,’ an old-man giggle slips out, ‘I said, “Actually, I do. I have their first one. Up All Night.” They were shocked. Shocked. And I said, “I like it. It’s light and fun. What more could you want from a pop group?”
‘Indeed.’ His ticket spits out of the printer. ‘Here you go.’
Herb slides two folded notes towards me and fumbles the ticket into his wallet. Scratches his shiny, liver-spotted head. ‘I thought I might have booked another ticket for a show that’s on, but I can’t seem to find it. Maybe I didn’t …’ A hopeful look matches the rising inflection.
‘I’ll check. No. The last ticket you bought was for The Musical of Musicals.’
‘Oh, I saw that one. Jolly good show, that was. A classic.’
‘I thought so, too.’
‘Yes. You know who all the rage is now? Il Volo. Il Volo. Italian for “The Flight”. You’ve heard of them? Good. They are all the rage. I was invited to see them, Il Volo, at the Regal and I asked my friend, where’s that again? And he said, “Subiaco”, and I thought, “That’s a long way at night”. And the tickets, they were eighty dollars. Eighty! I’m not poor, really, I’ve enough to get by, not like some, but eighty dollars is a lot of money. How much was the ticket today again?’
‘Fifteen? Really? Fifteen. Good. The classic was, when I saw the Fremantle Symphony Orchestra – I didn’t even know they had one, an orchestra, until that concert – and it was wonderful. I told the conductor how much I liked it, and he said, “That’s wonderful. Have you signed up for our newsletter?” and he took me off to do that, and then he introduced me to someone else. It was hilarious.’ Hilarioush. ‘I’ve got lots of stories like that.’
‘I’ll bet you do. So, we’ll see you Friday?’
‘Yes, yes. And I’ve got another show on tomorrow. I do like going places. The classic was, someone said to me, “You’re always out, Herb. Will you ever stop going off somewhere?” and I said, “I’ll try not to.” I’d shrivel up. I worked in an office for thirty-six years and every day at lunch, I would go somewhere. Anywhere. Just for a walk or something. Eat my lunch. Get out of the office. And when I retired, I just kept going the same way. I’m quite happy at home at night and in the morning, but during the day I cannot stand being at home. Why should I? If you can do it, do it. Keep busy, that’s what I say.’
‘I like to keep busy, too.’
‘Good. Good. On. You. It keeps you young. I like to visit a few different cafés in Perth as well. I have a bit of a routine, there’s three I go to. The classic is, I’m known by what I have. Isn’t that funny? Being known by what I have to eat instead of my name. They know as soon as they see me what I’m going to eat because I always order the same thing. There’s one café in Morley where I have nachos. I only like them there, they’re quite good. Then, in Carousel, in the food court, I go to Matsu Sushi – you probably have that here, too, oh then you know what I mean – and I have chicken teriyaki.’
Herb says teriyaki with pride, like it’s a daring choice, and waits for a nod of affirmation before continuing. ‘There’s an Asian man who works there, nice young man, and he always gives me a big smile when I go there. He says, “You want chicken teriyaki today?” and I say, “Yes, young man.” It’s quite good, that teriyaki. Quite good. And then I go to another place where I have … oh, what’s that thing with a banana and ice cream? Did you say banana split? Yes, that’s it, banana split. When I walk in, they say, “You want your banana split and coffee, Herb?” And I say, “Yes, please.” It’s rather hilarious. A classic, really.’
As he dabs at the glass once more, the phone shrills an end to our small talk.
‘There’s your phone. Well. Well, I’ll leave you to it.’ The hanky waves. ‘Must be off. I’ve got to walk to the bus station now. And then catch another train and a bus. You’d best answer that phone. I’ll see you Friday. See you then. Bye.’ The drag of his shoes on the cheap carpet whisper adieu.
Herb didn’t come back that Friday.
© MONIQUE MULLIGAN, 2016
Note: images courtesy of Pixabay